Friday, June 04, 2010
CSIS was tracking me: Somali on no-fly list
Graeme Hamilton And Stewart Bell, National Post
Friday, June 04, 2010
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. and TORONTO -The Somali man whose flight was diverted to Montreal this week because he is on the U.S. no-fly list said yesterday the FBI questioned him about possible links to a Canadian member of an al-Qaeda-linked militant group and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been tracking his movements.
In an exclusive interview inside the Plattsburgh, N.Y., jail where he is being held, Abdirahman Ali Gaal said he realized he was in trouble two weeks ago when FBI agents at an airport in Mauritania informed him he was banned from flying back to the United States, where he was a legal resident. They asked him about a number of suspected extremists, including a Canadian allegedly involved in the al-Qaeda-linked Somali group Al-Shabab.
Questioned by the FBI at the U.S. embassy in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, he denied any connection to the suspects but was told the only way he could return to the United States was by land or sea. He booked a flight to Mexico City, via Paris, and it was that Aeromexico plane that was blocked from entering U.S. airspace when U.S. authorities became aware of Mr. Gaal's presence on board.
Mr. Gaal, 33, was arrested at Montreal's Trudeau Airport on Sunday. On Tuesday, Canadian officials drove him to the U.S. border and handed him over to the Department of Homeland Security.
Neither the Canadian nor the U.S. government has explained why he triggered such drastic measures, but in the interview Mr. Gaal provided some clues.
He said CSIS officers had questioned his wife in Calgary about his whereabouts and activities several times over the past three months, while he was in Seattle and in Mauritania. He said he called CSIS to let them know he had nothing to hide. When he tried to board a plane last month in Mauritania, where he had been studying Arabic, FBI agents asked him about a several men, including Somali-Canadian Mohamed Elmi Ibrahim.
Mr. Ibrahim, nicknamed Canlish, is a 22-year-old University of Toronto student who left Canada last year and was reportedly killed in Somalia. A eulogy posted last month on a website linked to Al-Shabab claimed he died while fighting in a "fierce battle."
He is one of six young Somali-Canadians who left Toronto last year, setting off an investigation into whether they had travelled to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab. Mr. Gaal said he did not know the men and had only attended the Toronto mosque where they sometimes prayed, the Abu Huraira Center, once.
A seventh Toronto man is being investigated for allegedly training with Al-Shabab. He has since returned to Canada and has declined, through his father, to speak to a Post reporter. Former Toronto resident, Omar Hammami, is now a senior commander of Al-Shabab.
Canada outlawed Al-Shabab as a terrorist organization in March because of its campaign of suicide bombings and concerns it was attempting to radicalize and recruit Canadian youths. Somali-Canadian parents are said to be so concerned they are hiding their children's passports.
Mr. Gaal said he talks frequently about the war in his homeland in Internet chat groups but has no connection to Al-Shabab. "I'm not a member of any group. I'm not an extremist," he said. "I never used violence.... That's against Islam."
He acknowledged that he had submitted a bogus refugee claim in Canada in 2008, claiming to be fleeing strife in Somalia when in fact he was a legal resident of the United States. The deception was motivated by his desire to stay with his Canadian wife and four children, he said. He said he had a change of heart, told his lawyer the truth and asked him to withdraw the claim. He said he returned to Seattle last August, relocating his wife and children in Calgary on the way.
In the interview, he was desperate for details about the government's case against him. The Department of Homeland Security has said he is now inadmissible to the United States and has begun proceedings to have him removed to Somalia. A major strike against him is his Canadian refugee claim, which is considered an act of fraud.
"The problem I had with Canadian immigration, it happened by mistake," he said. "I called my lawyer and told him to stop. Human beings make mistakes."
He said he had no trouble boarding a flight from New York's JFK airport on March 5, and flew without incident to Mauritania, via Morocco. He said the purpose of his trip was to study Arabic grammar, so he could improve his reading of the Koran. He had planned to return on May 20 but was met at the airport by "two gentlemen from the FBI. They said they had bad news."
He then planned to return to the United States by flying to Mexico City and on to the border city of Tijuana, but mid-flight the Aeromexico pilot announced they were diverting to Montreal to refuel. "I was relaxed because I was not a criminal, and I didn't do anything wrong," Mr. Gaal said. But then the stop took much longer than a simple refuelling, and he was arrested.
Mr. Gaal was born in Mogadishu in 1976 and lived for 10 years in Seattle. In addition to his Canadian family, he has two children in Seattle from a previous marriage.
Al-Shabab, which means The Youth, has been fighting to impose Taliban-like rule in Somalia. Several hundred Al-Shabab fighters are foreigners who have converged in the war-battered East African country to participate in what they view as a jihad.
Among them are more than 20 Americans and a handful of Canadians. RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said last October that he was concerned they might return to Canada "imbued with both extremist ideology and the skills necessary to translate it into direct action."
CSIS called Somalia a "magnet for international terrorists" in its latest annual report to Parliament. Those who travel to Somalia to fight "may be drawn into global jihad circles, where they are subsequently recruited to carry out attacks against perceived enemies of Islam."